Jurgen Klopp’s mantra of “one game at a time” has never been more appropriate than it will be at Anfield on Sunday afternoon, when his league leaders take on Manchester City with the chance to go nine points clear of the champions. As was the case 12 months ago, the red half of Merseyside is at fever pitch as supporters contemplate the prospect of a first league title since 1990, a pressure that the Liverpool manager constantly tries to downplay.
In that light, the heartache of last season – when Liverpool lost just one game but were pipped to the title by a solitary point – has served as a counterpoint, a balance to the growing belief among fans; a reminder of the anguish of not only failing at the final hurdle but of, simultaneously, scaling the heights of Champions League success.
“A lot of experience we had last year, winning the Champions League, getting so close to the Premier League, it’s always going to benefit us in a good way,” said Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk.
“Winning the Champions League can get you up in the clouds but the manager, the staff, the players, have the right mentality at the moment that we want to do it again, like other teams.
“Everyone knows how difficult it is but we are just going to go for it and see where it brings us at the end of the season. If it doesn’t bring us what we want it to be, we will just try again next year. That’s the mentality we have.
“We don’t need motivation to win the league in that kind of case. We want to win the league like City, like more teams in the Premier League, but we know how tough it is.
“City are a fantastic team, they are the reigning champions and it’s very difficult to stay top there. Hopefully we will still be up there, but we know how tough it is. That’s why we don’t want to look too far ahead.”
Liverpool, who are unbeaten in the Premier League since losing to City on Jan 3 and undefeated at home since going down to Crystal Palace in April 2017, need look no further ahead than this afternoon.
Victory for the leaders would hand Klopp’s team an enormous advantage in the title contest, with a draw, presumably, favouring Liverpool far more than it would Pep Guardiola’s team.
Not that Van Dijk would countenance the prospect of playing only for a point.
“That’s something we are not going to think about, or discuss now whether a draw is good enough,” he said. “We want to win every game that we play and so it is Sunday of course, and they want to win as well. So we will see.
“I have no fear. You should not have fear when you go out on the pitch. That’s not something that we feel. We know we have the quality to win games, but we have to be more than at our best at times, and hopefully for the full 90 minutes, and try to grind out games as well. I think we have been doing it in some games this season.”
A six-point cushion could quickly disappear, he said. “I don’t know if we are better or if [City] are stronger than last year, but the situation is such that we are at the moment six points above them – but it can change quickly.
“We have had games that we could have done better. They have had games they could have done better but the situation, how it is right now, it is going to be a very tough game,” he added.
Van Dijk looks likely to face the threat of Sergio Aguero, City’s all-time leading scorer who has scored seven goals against Liverpool in his career, though none of those at Anfield.
If the Argentine will be looking to improve that statistic, the same can be said for Van Dijk’s team-mate Roberto Firmino, without a goal in his past eight appearances and with just three to his name all season.
Klopp has talked loud and often of the Brazilian’s value to his team – particularly in terms of his work rate and assists – and Van Dijk, who admitted he was surprised to learn of Firmino’s current lack of goalscoring form, is all too aware of his contribution, alongside strike partners Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.
“He hasn’t scored for [that many] games? Wow,” Van Dijk said. “He’s really important for us. I haven’t scored for many games either but I’m still doing my job.
“He’s so important and we are not worried at all. Everyone needs to contribute and I’m trying as well. Everyone needs to do their bit.
“Everyone knows how deadly those front three are and will be, no matter if they are not in a game. If they have a slight moment they can punish [teams] and they are so important for us.”